FAIRFIELD, N.J. Steve Vaught has lost more than 100 pounds on his walk across the country, but he’s regaining his sanity. At 410 pounds a year ago, the 40-year-old father of two from San Diego was battling a severe eating disorder and deep depression, caused by the guilt over accidentally killing two elderly pedestrians 15 years ago. “It threw me into a tailspin. In the three years after the accident I gained 150 pounds,” Vaught said. “When something like that happens, you lose the ability to care about anything. You don’t put value on anything, because you know it can end at any second.”
Vaught’s tipping point came last year when he was so obese that he couldn’t walk across a department store. So he decided a walk from Oceanside, Calif., to New York City would be just the cure. He set out on his journey on April 10, 2005, hoping to complete the trip in six months. By early November, he had reached the halfway point after walking 1,400 miles. After taking a break for the holidays, he resumed walking in January. He has kept a running log of his trek on his Web site, www.thefatmanwalking.com which has gotten hundreds of thousands of hits, while others have watched him on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show. “People try to make this about calories and scales, but this is about living your life,” he said Monday, walking briskly along Route 46 _ about 25 miles from his goal _ as cars hummed past and beeped, a large paunch still part of his 305 pounds. “I spent 15 years either regretting the past or fearing the future. Now I’m living in the present.”
He says he’s gone through 15 pair of shoes, 12 pairs of pants, three shirts, 30 pairs of socks and his own sanity twice. His first bout of deep depression was in New Mexico, where he stopped at a truck stop and didn’t want to continue through the desert. The next time was in an Amarillo, Texas, hotel when he went off his antidepressants and stayed there for seven days.
Vaught’s other problem on the trail has been a lack of healthy food to eat. Most of his options have been fast food. He says he eats what’s available when he stops, trying to stock up on carbohydrates in the morning and eat protein about 70 percent of the time. Early in the journey, he slept mostly in a tent, but also sleeps in motels along the route. The bearded hiker has no formal support team, but is often accompanied by a documentary filmmaker. “This trip has been horrible and it’s been wonderful,” he said. “But the best thing about all of this is the people I’ve met.”
Just then, as Vaught rested on a railroad tie just off the highway, 49-year-old Eddie Day of Montville pulled up, beeping the horn of his white sport utility vehicle. Day quickly jumped out, ran up to Vaught and told him what an inspiration he was. “He tells America to get off its butt,” Day said. “There are people who don’t get off their butts to go to the gym in their own hometown, and he’s out here walking across the country, you know?”
Vaught said he expects to conclude the journey Tuesday night, crossing the George Washington Bridge to New York City.
Lighter, if not wiser, fat man stumbles home
· Yearlong, 3,000-mile walk across US comes to an end
· Quest to lose weight acquired cult following
He braved rattlesnakes in the desert, and creepy hotel clerks in the Midwest. His wife left him, and he has stress fractures in both feet. But for Steve Vaught, a morbidly obese man who set out to walk across America to lose weight and find his soul, journey’s end was in sight yesterday.
At 6pm today, 48kg (7.5 stone) lighter and with nearly 3,000 miles behind him, Mr Vaught is expected to cross the George Washington bridge into New York City. He is not as trim as he thought he would be when he set off from his home in California more than a year ago, and he still has no solid answers on how to beat his addiction to food. But Mr Vaught was in good humour yesterday as he set out from Parsippany, New Jersey, to conquer the last 28 miles between him and Manhattan. “There are no sidewalks in New Jersey – well, maybe there are two. It’s a crazy place,” he told the Guardian. “I am actually walking in the roadway a lot of the time. Wouldn’t that be ironic to get all the way to New Jersey and get run over?”
But it would not be entirely out of keeping for an odyssey that has resolutely resisted conforming to America’s tidy notions of redemption. Mr Vaught is undeniably fitter than the 186kg man who set off from San Diego in April last year and, after tossing his depression medication into the desert, says he is a lot happier. He has acquired a cult following in the US and on the net, where imitators are planning cross-country walks of their own, and he is booked for appearances on breakfast TV.
Otherwise the journey has been a lot rockier than he could have imagined. His wife, April, filed for divorce last month. Within the past few weeks, he regained 9kg. The book deal, which was to have been the big prize at the end of his walk, has run into trouble over editing. As for breasting the tape at the end of his walk, Mr Vaught said department of homeland security regulations have quashed any plans for a party on the bridge. “Getting to New York is the ritual. I am not going to kiss the ground.” He admitted that the prospect of reaching journey’s end after more than a year on the road has left him feeling disoriented. “It’s a little confusing right now. On one level, I am really glad it is over and done with. I want to get back to my family.” He has plans to take his son and daughter swimming and to the cinema next week. “This is their time,” he said. “On the other hand, travelling and seeing different people every day, it’s kind of sad having that come to an end.”
Then he changed direction once again. “It’s like everything in life. You can’t overstay your welcome. There is a certain time to do something like this, and then it’s over and you have to move on.”
At a glance
Vaught, 40, left Oceanside, California, on April 10 last year. It has taken him 394 days to reach New York, covering2,843 miles and wearing through 14 pairs of shoes. He weighed 186kg (29st 4lb) when he started, and was 127kg (20st) by last month. He has put on weight recently and is now 140kg (22st). His website, fatmanwalking.com, receives 2m hits a month and he has been sent 80,000 emails. He has suffered a knee injury and kidney stones, and separated from his wife.
By MATTHEW VERRINDER
The Associated Press